Ondine by Giselle Renarde

Ondine by Giselle Renarde

Ondine

by Giselle Renarde

eXcessica Publishing

Ebook ISBN: 9781609822859
Print ISBN: 9781450564014

[ Contemporary Romance, FFM ]

Ondine is a layered and literary erotic journey combining explicit narrative with the suggestive feel of French cinema. Driven by ballet, art, and passionate liaisons, Ondine incorporates a sensual exploration of pansexual free love wrapped in a boy-meets-girl tale of mix-ups and misunderstandings.

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Chapter One


It was the sort of party I’d never imagined attending, particularly not on the arm of a young man from the upper classes. But Gavin was different. He certainly didn’t act like he’d been born into that sickeningly affluent realm of butlers and luxury vehicles. Heir to the Drinkwater family fortune, Gavin was just my type: his smiles were sometimes painfully shy and his style bashfully bacheloresque. Despite his personal wealth and his family’s infamy, it struck me right away how modest he was, and how easy to talk to…not to mention cute as the button on a church mouse’s cap!

Gavin first came to me in the spring. He’d been sent by his father to commission artwork for their family’s newest boutique hotel right here in Ottawa. Even after setting out his wish list of size and style specifications, he kept showing up on my doorstep to “check my progress,” or so he said. At first it was once a week, then as time went on he’d stay for an hour or two, claiming he liked hanging out in my garage-turned-art-studio to escape the pressures of the business world. I sincerely hoped there was more to it than that. The more he visited, the more I figured he must be stopping by to see me. Surely a rich kid like Gavin had better places to escape to than my drafty cement box of a studio.

As much as I’d been secretly crushing on him, and as much as he seemed interested in me, his party invitation came completely out of the blue. One day, he was sitting in one of my ratty lawn chairs watching me work on a huge canvas. I offered him a cup of Earl Grey. As he accepted the stone pottery mug, his dimpled cheeks all rosy pink, he passed me a card. Its gold lettering on an embossed background of pristine cardstock spelled out, You are cordially invited…

Shuffling his feet against the cement floor, Gavin stammered, “I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than come to some lame festival of the elite and listen to my father blather on all night, but I’m really hoping I can persuade you to attend. It’s the hotel’s Gala Celebration, so your art will be on display everywhere. You can think of it like a gallery opening if that makes you feel any better.”

It was beyond adorable how he thought he had to make excuses for me. Of course I would go to the Gala with him! How long had it been since I’d shed my paint-splattered jogging pants and put on a formal dress? Ice ages!

My stomach went queasy with nervous excitement every time I thought about the big day. I was actually kind of afraid I’d lost the ability to mingle in a room full of strangers. Working alone in my studio didn’t allow for much interaction with the outside world, and when I did get out it was more often to pick up supplies than to hobnob with the upper crust. I would have to cling to Gavin’s coat tails at this party. He was raised a sybarite; he knew how to behave.

Oh well. If the gala turned out to be overwhelming, or tedious, or in any other way unbearable, at least I could get my fill of free hors d’oeuvres. A starving artist is always on the look-out for a free meal.

 

On the afternoon of the big event, I hopped in the shower to scrub a splotch of dark blue oil paint from the back of my arm. I must have brushed against the night sky painting I was working on. Damn it! It wouldn’t come off. The deep pigment stained my skin to look like a nasty bruise. Well wasn’t that just perfect? Invited to a posh party by a sweet and sexy industrialist and I wound up looking like I’d been bounced from some sleazy club the night before. I dug through my accessories in search of some kind of wrap or shawl to mask the stain, but that was a bust. I would just have to tell everybody, “I am Evelyn Fon, artiste extraordinaire, and the blotch on my arm is the mark of my craft.”

When did I become such a klutz? Fifth grade. Most people overcome that awkward phase. Mine never ended.

It didn’t take long to dress, since I owned only one item of formal attire. The sleeveless satin gown in a rich shade of burgundy belonged to my sister Sharon, the uber-successful concert violinist. According to her, burgundy was passé and the dress should go to Goodwill. When you have a closet full of formal gowns, I guess you can say things like that. After six failed attempts at pinning up my hair, I threw in the bath towel. Curls would have been lovely, but they took forever to set and were gone without a trace ten minutes later. Chinese hair was a curse. How did Sharon always manage to look so good?

Grabbing the clutch purse my sister loaned me, I slipped on a scarcely worn pair of heels. When I finally got out the door, a black town car was just pulling up. Nobody had ever sent a car to pick me up before. How did I ever manage to convince Gavin I was fine enough to be his date? I felt like royalty in a second-hand dress.

“Mr Drinkwater is making preparations for tonight’s event,” the middle-aged driver informed me as he opened the car door. “He’ll meet you in the hotel ballroom.”

“I don’t usually go to events like this,” I told the kindly driver, like I had to qualify my attendance. “I’m not really sure how to act around rich people. I mean, my sister is one of them and I don’t even really know how to act around her.”

“You’ll be fine. Just laugh at their jokes,” the driver offered by way of advice. He let out a slow, reverberating chuckle. “And no matter what kind of stupid or ignorant things people say to you, pretend you’re not offended. I’m Edmond, by the way.”

“Evelyn. Pleased to meet you,” I introduced myself. “I have a sneaking suspicion this’ll be the only time tonight I say that and actually mean it.”

“You may be surprised,” Edmond replied. “After all, people are people. We all put on our pants one leg at a time.”

Quite right, Edmond. People are people. We only differ in the ways we treat each other. As Edmond drove through the posh area of the city where my sister and her husband lived, that quote from Animal Farm kept narrowly escaping my grasp. Something about everyone being equal, but some more equal than others…?

* * * *

When I arrived at the Drinkwater Luxury Hotel to find my paintings adorning the walls of the lobby, my chest swelled with pride. My lungs were a pair of helium balloons; I might have floated up to the ceiling if I’d held my breath! All those months of intense work really paid off. My art looked fantastic! I had to tell Gavin how happy I was with the result. But where was he? Tingles ran through my body at the thought of spending a whole evening with Gavin Drinkwater. Falling for a rich man…how typical was that? Oh, what difference did it make? I didn’t like him for his money.

A lithe brunette with a clipboard stood at attention in the foyer. In her headset and black outfit, I figured she must be someone official. Maybe she could bring me one step closer to finding my date.

“Can I get your name?” she inquired with an air of focused apathy.

“Evelyn Fon.”

The girl’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Ms. Fon, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. Mr Drinkwater is already in the ballroom. I can take you there if you like.”

“Super,” I replied, enthusiastically enough that she gave me a pity smile. Anybody who attended gala affairs on a regular basis wouldn’t be so excited to be there.

As she guided me down the expansive marble hallway, I wondered why this girl seemed to think she should have recognized me. My name wasn’t exactly up there with Picasso’s. Until I received my advance from Gavin, I was well on my way to being a starving artist. I was something of a mac and cheese for dinner artist. Or a tomato soup artist. A big bowl of white rice artist.

“Can you tell me something?” I asked the girl in the headset, simply to break the silence. “This is pretty majestic for a boutique hotel. Aren’t they usually small and quaint, like little country inns? I mean, this place has a ballroom!”

Eager to flaunt her knowledge, headset girl said, “Yes, you’re right. It is a bit of an oddity. But, you see, this way the hotel takes on a second revenue stream. The Versailles ballroom is now the most luxurious banquet hall in the city. Its décor is absolutely lovely, and it showcases some gorgeous artwork.”

Again, I swelled with pride. Headset girl thought my art was gorgeous! Pointing me in the direction of a set of dark wooden double doors, she said, “You’ll find Mr Drinkwater in there.” She then whispered something into her microphone and the ceiling-high doors swung open in unison. I figured they must be controlled by some kind of electronic switch—like everything else these days—until a pair of stewards stepped out from behind them. It was like stepping back in time. They were made up with white face-paint, beauty spots above their lips, and a dab of blush on each cheek. White wigs sat gingerly atop their real hair, three horizontal curls on each side and tresses tied in black ribbons at the back.

As I entered the sumptuous ballroom, I felt like a princess. An adroit server like the two at the door wouldn’t let me pass without taking a flute of champagne. Curtsying, I thanked the costumed man. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care. It was all so exciting! As I gazed across the bustling ballroom, I was transported to another place, another era. France of the eighteenth century? History never was my strong suit.

Velvet drapery the colour of my dress adorned windows running floor to ceiling. Where guests were dancing, the marble floors were bare, but there were patterned carpets in dark red, navy blue and gold tones on the floor near the giant windows. Each carpet seemed to demarcate a seating area, and every seating area was crowned with lavish French furnishings. The ceiling supported a pair of crystal chandeliers glinting with every colour of the rainbow. The splendour of the surroundings had me feeling drunk before even taking my first sip of champagne.

The giant canvases hanging on the salon-red walls were not my work, but I could hardly feel slighted about that. After all, my paintings were barely figural at the best of times, and abstraction didn’t correspond with the elegance of this environment. No, the art on these walls could easily have arrived straight from Versailles. There were portraits of stern monarchs and mythic allegories, and even a copy of the well-known Marie Antoinette and her Children by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, one of the many uncelebrated female artists of her time. How sad women’s contributions to the world of art had gone so unacknowledged over time. Hopefully that would change, and my own name would live on even after I was gone.

As I shifted my gaze to the organic aspect of my surroundings, it dawned on me that my sister’s satin seemed no better than a housedress set against the lavish gowns the ladies wore. Rather than feeling embarrassed by the relative simplicity of my attire, I felt quite content to observe the scene around me without being part of it. In the nooks by the windows, women waved lace fans about their faces and teased their partners with them. Ladies in extensive crinolines and their gentleman friends showed off some intricate footwork on the ballroom floor.

“What sort of dance are they doing?” I asked one of the wig-wearing servers.

“They are dancing a quadrille, Madame,” he informed me in a sober voice that reminded me of Stephen Fry’s Jeeves.

Where would they have learned such an outdated dance?

“The rich are very different from you and me,” I accidentally said out loud.

“Quite so,” replied the server as he bowed and took his leave.

Tracing the outskirts of the ballroom, I soon found myself standing behind a man wearing a yellow and blue silk brocade suit and a tall white wig. He looked just like a portrait of the King of France. I wasn’t sure which King of France, but in my mind they all look the same. At first I wondered if he was one of the servers, since none of the other male guests seemed to be wearing wigs, but his manner of addressing the group surrounding him suggested he was very much more than a mere server.

“It came to me in a dream,” said the King of France, who spoke with an English accent. “I saw this ballroom just as it is now and I thought, Eureka! I knew this would be the perfect hook for my little hotel. The Versailles Ballroom, I call it. All of our banquets will be catered with French haute cuisine by servers in period costume. There will be live baroque music, fancy dress and dancing. Have you ever before seen a sight such as this? Ladies in the finest garments of all time dancing a formal quadrille! It is simply exquisite.”

That’s when I retrieved a piece of information that must have fallen behind my filing cabinet of memories. On the inside of my invitation, I remembered seeing the words, fancy dress ball. Fancy dress was a British term. It meant “costume party.” I don’t how I managed not to pick up on that. I wasn’t supposed to wear a fancy dress to the ball, I was supposed a costume! A French period costume, by the looks of it. Why didn’t I read my invitation more carefully? Stupid, stupid, stupid…

“So, if I understand you correctly, this ballroom is to be a sort of costumed amusement park for the dangerously wealthy. Is that it?” a short balding man with a voice recorder asked the king.

“No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong, man!” the King of France replied. “I am single-handedly reviving capital-C Culture in this country. Many would agree culture—the right sort of culture—has been lost for some time, replaced by that bastard child, multiculture, and by naïve artists with neither training nor talent. I, of course, would argue high culture never existed in this country in the first place.”

My head pounded as I listened to that snob extol the virtues of fine European art. He was a bizarre mix of the worst of two stereotypes: English classism and French arrogance. It was a brave blend in Ottawa—a city split unofficially but nonetheless noticeably along language lines. The English would view his adoption of all things French as abandonment. The French would see it as cultural appropriation. Only someone with money and connections could get away with the stance this privileged man took.

When nobody within the circle of listeners spoke up, I couldn’t keep myself from voicing my opinions. I stepped through the crowd and sneered, “Are you kidding me? Canada has a thriving high arts community. I’m what you might call a naïve painter and my background is obviously not European, but you know what? My art is hanging on the walls of this extravagant hotel. My sister Sharon performs with the Ottawa Sinfonietta, and a lot of groups like theirs offer free or pay-what-you-can concerts. That way it’s not just the uber-rich who can attend. It’s the only way I could ever afford to see live classical music. Plus, the international press is saying the Canadian Opera’s new house one of the best in the world. Not just that, but when they opened the new opera house, they simulcast the gala performance right in front of City Hall so everybody could watch it for free.”

A fight or flight reaction raced through my veins as the king turned around to face me. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. After my brief tirade I couldn’t even bring myself to look this man in the eye. Instead, I stared at the ruffle of lace at the neck of the silky white shirt. He spoke self-righteously, like his word was final. “That’s precisely the problem I’m talking about! Is nothing sacred? Everybody has access to all levels of culture nowadays. Even homeless people can see the Opera! Historically, that was not so.”

Edmond the driver had advised me to pretend not to be offended by the ignorant things rich people say. I guess I wasn’t very good at following instructions. I replied, “Yes, but those homeless people would still have had to pay upwards of, what, $100 per ticket to actually set foot inside the Opera House? And if you want to speak historically, plenty of peasants attended performances of Shakespeare’s plays back in his day. I think they had to stand, but at least tickets were cheap enough for everyone to go.” I wasn’t certain my argument was on firm footing. High School English class was a long time ago, and I might have misremembered my facts. “Anyway, that’s not even the point. The point is that capital-C Culture, as you call it, should not be relegated to the rich. The Opera and the Symphony and every other kind of art should be accessible to the masses.”

“And yet, Ms Fon,” the King replied, “the prices of your own artistic creations contradict everything you’ve just said.”

My jaw literally dropped as I stared dim-wittedly at the man’s silk brocade outfit. How did the King of France know me? Why did the girl with the headset recognize my name? Had I been posting nude photos online in my sleep or something? What was going on?

It was only then I looked up at his face for the first time. I’d hoped his features wouldn’t match his deep velvet voice, but no such luck. This horribly elitist person had wise old eyes, but youthful skin. If I ignored his ridiculous white wig, his noble face was really quite attractive. But who was he? Had I sold him a painting last summer from my booth on Sparks Street? He didn’t look all that familiar.

“My son has spoken kindly of you,” the King continued. When he shook my hand, a sinking feeling developed in the pit of my stomach, like its contents were swirling towards a drain. “Of course, it was my idea to commission your work in the first place. My dearest friends, Kip and Elsie, have one of your smaller works hanging in their powder room. Dandelion seeds blowing in the wind. Really quite lovely. I saw that painting and I said to myself, ‘you really must commission this artist for the hotel.’ I did intend to come out to your studio myself—I’ve been anxious to meet you, I must admit—but setting up this establishment has been incredibly time-consuming. With every new project, I forget how hard I had worked on the last one. I always think the next hotel will be easy. It never is. But then, nothing worth having is easily attained.”

Lost for words, I stood staring at the King of France. This raging snob was Gavin’s father, the real estate magnate who headed the Drinkwater Company. God help me, I just picked a fight with the head of a multinational corporation! My cheeks bristled and I wondered precisely which shade of red they’d gone. Crimson, I was willing to bet. Maybe even scarlet. Was there anywhere to sit down? I felt faint. Oh, and I couldn’t even hide my embarrassment in anonymity; I was his son’s date. I should have headed home right then. But how did Mr Drinkwater recognize me when we’d never met? Perhaps Gavin was so taken with me, he described my looks in detail? Wishful thinking…

A headset-wearing aide saved me by intruding on our conversation. “Excuse me, Mr Drinkwater, we’re ready to get started now.”

“Ms Fon, please don’t go far,” Drinkwater said as his aide dragged him away. “I have something for you.”

A cheque, I hoped. The advance Gavin provided only covered my materials. I needed payment in full as soon as possible. Despite my wishing and hoping, the fridge wouldn’t fill itself.

It occurred to me that, having become engrossed in the opulence of the gathering and then in my argument with Drinkwater, I forgot to find my date. As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very far to find the younger of the Drinkwater men. A fanfare flourished to announce a procession of moguls with delusions of grandeur. The echo of cornets sounded across the ballroom, underscored by the click clack of heels against marble as dancers in wide skirts cleared a path for the royal family. A string quartet played La Marseilles as the aristocratic Drinkwater marched triumphantly through the doors of the Versailles Ballroom. My handsome Gavin, too proud for the silly garb his father wore, slunk in wearing a very sharp suit. Clinging to his arm was a gorgeous woman with legs to her armpits and blonde hair pinned up at the sides. Figures she was able to achieve the look I was going for! Her red sequined dress was so skimpy it scarcely covered her enormous breasts, which threatened to burst out at every turn. Flashing her perfect white teeth at the crowd, she waved as the circle of people standing near me snapped the Drinkwaters’ picture.

“That girl,” I said, addressing the bald reporter beside me. “She’s Gavin’s sister, right?”

The man issued a nasal laugh, which seemed more at me than with me. “I certainly hope not—not with the skankalicious evening she’ll have planned for that little hottie.”

I stared blankly at the little man.

“That’s Coral Savage,” he went on. “And I mean the Coral Savage, Drinkwater’s publicist. She’s little Gavin’s date tonight.”

My blood ran cold with the terror of fulfilled expectation.

“Don’t you recognize her?” he asked.

I shook my head, feeling like my heart had been trampled by this girl. I had no idea who she was.

“What, do you live under a rock or something? That chick has the worst rep for being a party girl. Like mondo slut-o. If you called her for phone sex, you’d get an ear infection. Seriously! You need to start reading my column, honey.”

“I don’t read tabloids,” I replied without thinking. Was that really rude of me? How did I even know who he worked for? There was just something in the sleaze of his mannerisms that cried out tabloids!

“Well maybe you should start. You’re guaranteed to see yourself in the next edition, Missy Fon. I can’t believe you picked a fight with Gavin Drinkwater! I gotta say, I really enjoyed that. Top marks for performance.”

Hopelessly confused, I asked, “What are you talking about? I haven’t even spoken to Gavin tonight. I certainly haven’t fought with him.”

“Get a clue, Miss Magoo! You fought with Gavin Drinkwater Senior. Sheesh! Like, you are so not from my planet!” the man cried, shaking his head.

“There are two Gavin Drinkwaters?”

“You know it, sister! Senior and Junior, father and son.” The little man continued talking, but I was too busy planning my escape to listen. Overwhelmed by the masses of guests, I could barely breath. The room seemed to be spinning. Two Gavin Drinkwaters…and my date had a date…so, who was my date? I had to get out of the ballroom. Immediately. All eyes were on the royal family, which presented me the perfect opportunity to slip away.

Without waiting for a reply, I excused myself from the benign gossip and set off on a mad dash for the nearest unguarded exit. I burst through the set of small swinging doors, only to find myself in a room full of hors d’oeuvres, wine, and champagne bottles. Obviously I’d let myself into the staff only serving area. The servers were all watching the royal spectacle in the ballroom, but I wasn’t about to wait for someone to discover me in a restricted zone. No way I was leaving without free food in tow, so I grabbed a serving platter adorned with every conceivable appetizer. A gold-foiled green bottle caught my eye, so I grabbed that too. Without a free hand, I had to kick open door number two with the sole of my shoe before escaping into relative darkness.

I found myself in a dimly lit corridor. A formal French sofa pushed against the wall became the resting place for my food platter as much as the darkened hallway was my refuge. What the hell was Gavin playing at, inviting me and then bringing that blond bimbo instead? He seemed so sweet, but wasn’t that always the way? The charming guys were all slime at heart. My blood boiled—I could actually feel it sizzling in my veins, making brave attempts to bubble out through the surface of my skin. I pounded my heels against the marble floor, but that only hurt my feet. I kicked off my shoes, but that did nothing to relieve my anger. Picking them up off the ground, I flung those stiletto torture devices into the facing wall with such ferocity one of my heels lodged itself into the sheetrock. A cathartic sweat broke along my brow. I didn’t want to cry, but the universe didn’t seem concerned about my wants. Thankfully, the French sofa was more comfortable than it looked, and it held me in cushioned arms when I fell into it. I guess it was my own stupidity that bothered me more than anything. Why would I ever have imagined someone like Gavin might be interested in me?

Leaning back into the soft foam, I tried to remember Gavin’s exact words when he asked me to the ball. Champagne boosts memory power, right? I popped the cork on my ill-gotten bottle and poured myself a glass. I thought he’d said something like, “I know it’ll be boring, but I hope I can convince you to attend.” Was that a specific invitation, or just a general one? And hadn’t he mentioned his father in some capacity? “I know my father is boring,” or something like that? I couldn’t remember the specifics. Not that semantics mattered at that point. I must have misinterpreted. But, then, why did Gavin hand-deliver my gold-lettered invite? He couldn’t possibly have done that for everyone. All I wanted to know was if I was as special to him as he was to me! Obviously not. Why would anyone want to be seen in public with mousy little Evelyn Fon? He could obviously do much, much better, if Coral Savage was any indication. Rich young guys dated sexy blonde party girls, not bland Chinese-Canadian painters. That’s life.

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[bctt tweet=”Read #excerpt of Ondine by @GiselleRenarde #MenageRomance #billionaire”]